Friday, April 12, 2013

Which Government Works Best?

I am a severe political junkie. This is probably bad for my mental health but I still am. I wake up to NPR, read the opinion and national/world sections of the paper with the same enthusiasm as that of my brothers for the funnies, receive weekly e-mail bulletins from Truthout, and generally stay well-informed, or try to. Politics is my obsession, my passion; I devote more time and thought to it than to anything, save perhaps this blog or my studies[1]. Consequently, I’ve been following the budget debate in the United States with some interest, and one thing has become clear to me: This isn’t about entitlements, or defence spending, or CCL adjustments, or what-have-you at all. This--the debt ceiling, sequestration, the fiscal cliff, the Ryan budget, all of it--is a great debate over what form of government is the most effective.
Think about it for a moment. On the one side, you have the Democratic Party, led by the President and Senate, for whom the ideal state is a liberal democracy, backed by a strong federal safety-net of the kind that existed between 1932 and 1981 or so. On the other, the Republicans, by which I mean the House of Representatives, who want to dismantle the social safety-net altogether, rewrite the social contract to exclude the parts concerning welfare, and incidentally balance the budget. In the middle, the citizens of the United States of America, 315 million strong, black, white, gay, straight, middle-class, working-class [2], Hispanic, descendents of English Puritans who came ashore from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, just arrived last Thursday, speaking English, Spanish, French, German, Swahili, Arabic, young, old, the pluribus that makes the Unum. I applaud the executive and legislative branches’ audacity but not their methods. A nation of 315 million is not a small thing; 47 percent--to borrow Mitt Romney’s infamous statistic--of 315 million is still quite a significant number, and they’re not controlling any variables, as countless science teachers have warned[3]. Still, the question does need answering, even if not in a nation of this size and complexity. To this end, I propose a small experiment:
Find a parcel of land somewhere uninhabited, or at least sufficiently sparsely populated that you needn’t worry about uprooting too many people. It doesn’t have to be very large--for our purposes, an area about the size of Belgium will do. Buy it. Now, cordon it off. As of now, this is an independent, sovereign nation, with its own laws, borders, and economy. Actually, it’s four microstates, for reasons I’ll explain in a second. Now that you’ve divided it up into these states, get people; you’ll need them. Control for population, population density, gender parity, racial/ethnic diversity, distribution of people, and age distribution. Also control for form and structure of government; each country will have a legislative assembly--call it the National Assembly, Congress, Parliament; the names are at present irrelevant--divided into an Upper and a Lower House (again, the names are irrelevant), a central Executive (probably best to call him a President--after all, these will all be republics), and a judicial branch and will be unitary, divided for administrative purposes into a number of districts--call them municipalities. But these are the only things for which you’ll be controlling. For beyond these simple factors, everything about the government will be completely different. Remember how I said earlier that this land would be divided into four countries. (For simplicity’s sake--and also because I’m lazy, so can’t be bothered to come up with better names--let’s call them Countries A, B, C, and D.) Each one of these will be run according to different principles of government, running the gamut from libertarianism through to Communism.[4]
Herewith, in alphabetical order, the individual countries:

 Country A

Country A is the only country that lacks a precedent outside of Ayn Rand’s brain and the tracts (I hesitate to use the word “writings”; it implies some level of conscious thought) of L. Neil Smith[5]. Yes, Country A is a state run according to the principles of laissez-faire economics, that the government that is best, governs least, and that the free market will solve all problems--in short, a libertarian (perhaps even an Objectivist) utopia. It is a state marked by:
  • The precept that government is all well and good in its place--out of the bedrooms, gun-lockers, and (especially) board-rooms, and preferably guarding the frontiers or building a road or a canal or something. Government interference is kept to a minimum, on the theory that ordinary decent law-abiding people will by and large do the right thing without some God-damn government bureaucrat somewhere telling them what to do. As a result, the government’s regulatory powers are in theory limited and in practice non-existent.
  • The government’s powers in general are limited; the only things it can do are protect the interests of the people (enforcing laws, of which there aren’t many, and settling disputes over property--and a lot of things are classed as property), maintain the country’s frontiers (raise a standing army and/or militia), and pay for those portions of infrastructure that private citizens can’t subsidize out-of-pocket (roads, canals, and the like--and the roads are for the most part funded by tolls). 
  • Given the lack of governmental support services, welfare is privatised, as is most of the other services a government provides in liberal democracies--schools, broadcasting, etc. The market is the final arbiter in all areas of life.
  • Taxes are low, limited to a single flat tax wherein everyone pays five percent of their income, no matter what they earn, and possibly also a national sales tax. The government is forbidden from collecting property, income, or any other kind of tax, besides those mentioned above.
  • In fact, the government is limited in what it can own--no more than, altogether, ten percent of Country A’s total surface area and whatever supplies and arms the army and national police force (assuming one exists) require. (Alternately, all land is privately owned; the national and local governments lease whatever space they require. Even by libertarian standards, though, that’s weird.)
  • Thanks to the aforementioned low taxes and massive privatisation, the country is a business heaven. Corporations flock there.

Country B

At the exact opposite end of the political/economic/statist/libertarian spectrum, we have Country B--perhaps a better name for it would be the People’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Country B. Country B is a Communist state--honest to Engels, Marxist-Leninist, possibly also Stalinist.
  • The economy is entirely planned, top-down. The state--through the Ministry of Economic Production--runs everything. Rationing is the primary method of conveying goods to the populace. You don’t like it, go to Country A or Country C, counter-revolutionary traitor scum!
  • The state owns. Absolutely. Everything. All industry is nationalised; all property is publicly owned, save for sundries such as toiletries, a suit of clothes or two, whatever food you’ve been allotted, and maybe a bicycle.
  • In addition, privacy, while not illegal as such, is looked upon with suspicion, as is a liking for solitude. After all, if you spend too much time alone, out in the countryside whilst not on a community hike, you could be plotting with the imperialist capitalists in Country A, Country C, or (gasp, whispering) Country D!
  • There is only one party, making elections somewhat pointless. They carry them out regardless.

Country C

“C” is for cookie, Communism, cats, Congress, and control--as in “-led variable”. Country C is the “control country”, a liberal democracy with a rather strong social safety net. It is probably the most “normal” of the four, marked by the following characteristics:
  •  As I said, there’s a strong--or at least decent--governmental safety-net, like that which exists in most of Europe, Canada, and Australia. Welfare, the dole, universal health care, the works.
  •  There exists a progressive tax structure: a national graduated income tax (inverse-pyramid wherein the rich pay more than the poor) value-added tax (no idea why), property tax, and perhaps a national sales tax for starters, though who’d be in favour of both VAT and a sales tax is beyond me.
  •  Note that “for starters”; government is fully capable of levying more taxes as it sees fit, unlike the Land of Everyone Pays Five Percent and Only Five Percent, Now and For Ever, Amen.
  •  Like Country A, Country C is capitalist and has a market economy; however, the government has broadly defined regulatory duties and powers (no horsemeat-contaminated beef here, no sir!) and some industries, though not all, are nationalised (tantamount to treason in Country A)--the post office, coal mining, rail transport, etc.
  •  Government has all the duties it has in Europe and America: it runs most of the schools, the postal service, some of the broadcasters, the military, the roads, the police and corrections[6], the utilities...

Country D

Stand back; this is where it gets weird. Country D is a fascist dictatorship, as existed in Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, and Spain under Franco[7]. This means:
  •  All power is centralised in the office of one all-powerful Leader. (Hail, Leader!) This Leader can declare war, order citizens arrested, unilaterally appoint judges and ministers (and dis-appoint them), and dissolve and call Parliament. (The Leader’s such a great guy!)
  •  While there is indeed a Parliament, it’s essentially pointless, existing only to approve the Leader’s every command and directive and generally burnish his ego and further his cult of personality.
  •  There is only one legal Party, that of the Leader. (Hail, Leader!) This makes elections even more pointless than Parliament.
  •  The State (in the form of the Leader[8]) is the paramount power; serving the State--preferably in a manner that involves a heroic death in one of the wars that the Leader (Hail, Leader!) is always fighting--the ultimate glory.
  •  Government employment carries with it some perks, namely sweet threads. Every civil servant and soldier, from the Leader (Hail, Leader!) down to the lowliest clerk, wears some class of uniform[9].
  •  The military is the most powerful force, political or otherwise, in Country D. The Leader (Hail, Leader!) is the commander-in-chief of the military, and holds the ranks of Leader (Hail, Leader!) and Supreme Marshall[10]. All able-bodied adult men must serve for at least five years in the military; if they do not, they’re labelled traitors to the state and sent to the salt mines[11] or somewhere equally unpleasant.

So...what happens next? Heck if I know; that’s the interesting bit. History, however, is an excellent precedent. Using what actually happened [12] in the real-life analogues of these four countries (for they do indeed have analogues insofar as governing is concerned, save Country A), we predict what will probably happen. Thus, I can predict with some certainty that:
  • Country B will have a thriving black and grey market to supply those things that the Ministry of Economic Production will be unable to supply, for there will be shortages of small things: Stockings, razor blades, bootlaces, deodorant, bread, that kind of thing[13].
  • Country A will most likely have massive economic inequality, with a few very, very rich people at the top controlling everything, the masses struggling to survive on a few dollars a day, and a very small middle class constantly getting screwed over[14].
  • Country D will be nearly bankrupt, gouging its citizens to pay for the wars the Leader (Hail, Leader!) is constantly waging and to upgrade its hardware to the newest, shiniest models. In addition, some percentage of the populace will have become radicalised and at least plotting against the Leader (Hail, Lead-Oh, forget it), if not in outright rebellion.
  • I have no idea what will be going on in Country C.
These are only things that will probably happen; and besides them, who knows? Country D could conquer the area entirely, Country A could undergo a Communist revolution and union with Country B, Country B could have a counter-revolution and embrace capitalism--I seriously do not know. That’s the beauty of thought experiments--you’re not constrained by the limits of practicality and probability. Anything could happen. These are just some thoughts.
 --Alex Adrian, 4/6/13
[1] Just to prove my point, I offer the following evidence: We’re reading 1984 in my English class and were trying to come with three questions for discussion. I wanted to compare Ingsoc--the official Party ideology in the novel, Newspeak for “English socialism”--to various historical variants of socialism and Communism. My classmates didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about, and I flew off the handle, ranting about how apathetic Americans are and how in two to three years they’re going to affect public policy and on and on...My mom convinced me that maybe architecture is a bad idea for a future career and that I should think about going into public policy.
 [2] I’m not counting the rich into this discussion; they get enough help and attention already.
 [3] Hey, wait a second; if the GOP ignored their science teachers in high school, maybe that’s why they don’t seem to believe in evolution...
 [4] Yes, you probably could do this experiment over a few months or weeks with several thousand college students, but where’s the fun in that?
 [5] Haven’t a clue as to what I wanted to write here.
 [6] Does anyone else think that it’s a bad idea to privatise the prison system? What you’re doing essentially is creating a market and demand for prisoners.
 [7] Let’s not argue over whether the Soviet Union under Stalin was fascist or not, shall we? It’s a decent debate, but I don’t want blood on the carpet; bloodstains are very hard to get out. 
[8] Hail, Lead--Oh, you know the drill.
 [9] Basically, at least forty percent of the adult male population.
[10] Or, if we’re going to be Roman and shit about it, Dux; perhaps Duce, like Mussolini. Point is, Leader needs a fancy title. 
[11] Oh, yes, there will be salt mines. Y’ever hear of a totalitarian dictatorship where they didn’t have salt mines? Note: Find location with salt mines.
[12] Country A doesn’t have any real analogue, although it may, if the R’s have their way. Country B is based on any number of Communist countries; I’m thinking specifically of the Soviet Union. Country C is a moderate social democracy, probably closest to modern Germany. Country D is of course fascist, so probably looks a lot like Nazi Germany.
[13] Of course, there’ll be shortages. One of the problems of a command economy; it’s impossible to know what demand will be beforehand, so you guess. Generally, you low-ball it...
[14] You say this wouldn’t happen? That the free market, left to its own devices, will always make all people equally prosperous? Look around at America today; look at the inequality out there. Look at what thirty-odd years of free markets, absolutely unregulated, have brought, friend.

1 comment:

  1. Nice exploration of the possibilities, and very funny too. I wonder if there is a way that you could link your footnotes from the numbers; it would make for easier reading.